human microcosm

The current pandemic has opened international awareness on the power of microorganisms. A simple virus, which usually causes the common cold, has turned lethal. The new version of the virus is so unusual that it causes new symptoms, which never has occurred with coronaviruses. Why the COVID-19 is so infectious and lethal might be found in the state of our own body’s microflora (gut, skin, lungs etc.)

There is a joke going around that the general population is now coronavirus experts. The general person has read many articles and listened to endless news reports on the virus, why it is so infectious, how it works, what the symptoms are etc. For the first time in many decades, the general population is interested in a form of human microbiology.

And, it is in human microbiology that there are some answers to why and how this pandemic has developed, why it even exists. But, the story is far more than human microbiology, it also enters the world of agricultural and soil microbiology.

Disclaimer: these views are some of the possible answers to the pandemic, but as in all natural systems, many factors are in play.

To fully understand the link with microbiology, we need to understand the fact that being human is not just being made up of human cells. We are also a large portion of microbial cells. Using the human gut as an example. All us humans, regardless of culture, have a complex population of microbes living in our digestive system. Each region of the gut has slight variations in the groups of microbes. This community of microbes are made up of many different types, each type having a very specific role – think of a well-run city – there are the bakers, the grocers, the shop keepers, police, municipal workers, business wo/men, doctors etc. Any imbalance can create bad outcomes (think if the population of doctors are reduced to only 20% – utter chaos will ensure). This is exactly what happens in our gut microbes. A microbial imbalance can cause severe illnesses, and even some surprising symptoms.

Due to some recent research (past decade) we have realised how important this city of microbes is to our own health. They digest our food for us (our own gut is quite bad at digesting our food by itself). The gut cells are so dependent on the microbes that they cannot function without the microbes telling the gut what to do. For example, the protective mucous layer produced by the gut is made under strict orders by gut microbes – if the microbe population is unbalanced, the gut does not produce the protective layer and ulcers can then develop. Our serotonin (happy hormone) is produced by the gut, which is dictated by the microbial population – a new possible cause of some depression. Even food cravings are actually messages by the bacteria – we basically crave what the gut microbes want to eat. And more importantly, the efficiency of our immune system is heavily determined by a balanced gut microflora. This list goes on, but it is clear that many aspects of being human is our gut microbes.

And so, many illnesses of the modern world are related to the gut microbes. Our modern lifestyles have largely diminished our balanced gut microbes. And the question is how did we get to this stage? What are we doing wrong? Could we fix our guts?

Here is where we link the natural and agricultural microbiology to our health. Pre-industrial, and pre- mass agriculture, humans ate a varied diet. Plenty of different seeds, different plants, different protein sources (meat, fish and plant proteins). This diet feed humans a varied nutrition and supported a high diversity of microbes. If a plant source had high antimicrobial properties, just by being in nature they restored the gut microbes. Natural surfaces, such as leaves and fruit, and especially healthy soils (good carbon levels), contain all the microbes we need for a healthy gut (and healthy skin). This is important because it is here where humans evolved with the microbes. The human healthy microbes are the healthy microbes found in a healthy natural environment.

Come the age of industrialisation and mass agriculture, and things started to change, devastatingly very quickly.

The real damage to the microbiome started in the industrial age. People started to work more indoors, less exposure to outdoor environments. Economies started to increase, widening the poverty-rich gap. And, majority of populations began to consume less and less variety in food groups. Potatoes, rice, corn, and wheat started to be the main carbohydrate sources, and many green vegetables types were lost to the layman. Pollution increased, and even chemicals were emitted from factories. Cities increased rapidly, and the modern diet and lifestyle developed. We were reducing the abilities for us to maintain a high and varied gut microflora, due to a reduced variety in our diet, and by not replenishing our gut microbes from the natural environment.

Then the age of fertilisers began. With the increasing world population, fertilisers were a saving grace. However, (which has really been proved in the last few decade), is that the natural microflora in the fields have been severely compromised. The fertiliser salts have been killing the soils, the same way we preserve meats by salting. Diseases in agriculture has increased, with the concomitant increase in pesticides. The much-needed chemicals have only increased the microbial problem, increasing the reliance on more chemical pesticides. Today’s foods from conventional agriculture does have less beneficial microbes. So, simply by eating healthy food (conventional sourced) is not replenishing the gut, and skin, microbiome.

Our gut microbiota, unknowingly to the medical world, had taken a hard knock. Diseases and lowered immune systems have increased, with the equal advancement of medicine practices. Doctors have been getting more efficient, our life spans have actually increased. But, one of the core problems causing disease, the gut microbiome has, unknowingly, been neglected. Maybe we have been treating the symptoms and not the cause?

The relation of this conundrum to the COVID-19 virus will be discussed in Part 2, as well as what we can do in the future to restore some much-needed microbial balance.